In an already vulnerable business sector, Black restaurant owners battle to stay open

By Anqi Zhang, originally published in Sampan on July 24, 2020.

At this very moment when the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide encountered the long-lasting Covid-19 pandemic, the situations of small local businesses, especially Black-owned businesses, have been brought to the forefront of public awareness.

The restaurant industry in Mass. is approaching $5 billion in lost sales, and 200,000 employees have been laid off since the state government shuttered dine-in business for bars and restaurants March 17, according to Steve Clark, the Director of Government Affairs at Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA), in an interview with Sampan on July 1.

Among those who are impacted, black-owned bars and restaurants are particularly vulnerable. According to a press release by Boston Black Hospitality Coalition (BBHC), Boston’s Black-owned bars and restaurants have lost more than 90 percent of their revenue amidst the Covid-19 crisis, and 88 percent of the workforce, primarily people of color, were laid off during this crisis, affecting 116 households.

Some of the businesses closed permanently, “like a candle that burns out,” expressed Theodora Skeadas, Executive Director of Cambridge Local First (CLF). Some survived, with the help and care from local organizations made up with committed individuals.

“Being a small restaurant owner is very hard,” Clark said. “You don’t have staff, you don’t have an attorney, you don’t have an HR professional; you don’t have any of these things that other businesses have. And that’s a struggle that every restaurant owner faces. It doesn’t matter where they’re located, or what their makeup is.”

Located in Dorchester, Restaurante Cesaria features traditional Cape Verdean cuisine and occasional live music. Opened in 2002, co-owners, Tony Barros and Jose Fonseca-Brandao, believed that they could fill the vacancy of authentic culture for Cape Verdeans in Boston. They purchased an alcohol license from a friend and got it transferred after six years of successful management, proving itself to the community as a respectable business bringing good to the community.

Tony Barros (left) and Jose Fonseca-Brandao (right) co-own Restaurante Cesaria. (Photo courtesy of Raquel Semedo)

At the time it was easier to get the license in certain areas, “but if you didn’t have that, it would be virtually impossible to get anything,” said Tony Barros, co-owner of Cesaria. “Luckily, they gave us when we purchased it. We didn’t buy it outright, but we have to pay them installments, and we are still paying.”

Looking back at operating Cesaria’s past 19 years, Barros described the process as a roller coaster. The pandemic reminded him of the period after 9/11, when people stopped going out, and it was tough to keep the business running. To maintain the business during the shutdown, Cesaria utilized delivery apps and got more orders. They added Grubhub besides the original two delivery company partners, Ubereats and Doordash, Barros said. The delivery services have worked out well, and even brought them new customers, from the analytical data Barros got on those delivery applications.

Cesaria was also in partnerships with different organizations including Commonwealth Kitchen, YMCA Dorchester, Cape Verdean Association of Boston, and provided food for the elders and people in need. “We did at a very low cost, but still, those things kept us afloat during the pandemic,” Barros said.

Liquor license fees, rental costs, a variety of local and state taxes: Small business owners have to take into account all kinds of fees at the beginning of their business, and they still pay even during the pandemic. “The reality is small and micro businesses will have to go through all these little things, where a bigger chain of operations will be kind of like a drop in the bucket,” said Faarooq Sahabdeen, Director of Communication of BHHC.

Having recognized the emergency facing black-owned restaurants and bars like Restaurante Cesaria, BBHC was created during the pandemic in partnership with the NAACP Boston branch. It’s made up of five of eight black liquor licensed restaurants and bars in the city. They call for actions from elected officials, local organizations, and neighborhood residents to ensure the future of Boston’s Black-owned hospitality industry, and ultimately preserve their legacy of over 180 years in Boston’s Black communities, noted in the release.

The basic goal of BBHC is not only to create the fund that help its five members go through the pandemic, but also relocate the money, which comprises federal and state-based funds and individual donations through the website link and fundraising activities, and help other minority-owned businesses in the community, Sahabdeen said.

It’s noted in the release on the BHHC website that there are eight black liquor licensed restaurants and bars in Boston, compared with over 1,200 liquor licenses given out; 83 percent of these businesses are in Roxbury; 75 percent of the customer base are people of color.

“These businesses represent almost a mirror image of the community,” Sahabdeen said. Districts including Roxbury, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain are where the neighborhoods of Black people are, he said.

The difficulties that black-owned businesses are facing speak to an existing structural problem. For example, they do not have their own properties, neither can they afford the rent in downtown areas. When applying for loans, immigrant business owners don’t have the long-standing bank relationship, and they struggle to navigate the complicated process.

“We always had trouble getting loans from the banks,” said Barros. “We tried to purchase the building that we were in and we weren’t able to purchase it,” he said. “We needed a capital even if it wasn’t that big.”

Cesaria’s owners had to go through cash advance, a short-term loan from a bank, which lends applicants money at high interest. The advantage is that the merchants can get money in short notice based on their credit card income, but then they could get stuck with the high interest, Barros said.

During the pandemic, voices of support and help have come within and outside the black community. And nonprofit organizations like CLF make their down-to-earth contributions.

CLF is a nonprofit network of locally owned and independent businesses, formed in October 2005. Through various campaigns, trainings, and media exposures, they seek to promote the importance of “Local Economy Community” by educating the public and government.

“An economy cannot thrive when a group of people experience fear and stress walking down the street, when they cannot breathe,” it was stated on the CLF website posted on May 27. “Our work does not end with words of support or acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter.”

Their efforts include mentoring programs, which started in June. During the meetings, business owners are offered a series of training on traditional banks, and instructed on how to access loans as well as venture capitalists, etc.

CLF has also been helping black-owned businesses increase their media presence through promotions on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and their newsletters.

“I would say a lot of our black business owners are doing more with less,” Skeadas said. CLF wants to offer help under the umbrella of a business owner, and foster their leadership, which could help make sure the service is offered in the right place. However, trying to find time for everyone and help identify available resources itself poses a big challenge, since those owners have many responsibilities with extremely busy schedules, she said.

Responding to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, CLF added a live map indicating black-owned businesses statewide, on the basis of an existing map about local businesses in Cambridge, which was built to help local businesses go through the pandemic.

On the map, visitors can enter the area they live in, and find the information of black-owned businesses nearby, including their names, websites, addresses, social media, etc.

Daniel Wang is a volunteer at CLF, and he directly participated in building the black-owned businesses map. Before that, he and his friends built a website called Covid Biz Link, which is like a clearinghouse for volunteers and small businesses.

Wang has family in Shenzhen, China, and he knows how seriously a local business can be impacted by the coronavirus. “Small restaurants like my childhood favorites, where I used to spend my birthday parties, they closed down,” he said. “That really impacted me.”

As a high-school student interested in computer science, Wang self-taught related skills and feels it’s worthwhile to devote his time and expertise into something that really helps his community.

There are other Black-owned business lists and directories on the Internet, “but from what I know so far, I have a sense that we have one of, if not the most, complete and diverse map, Wang said. “And that’s something that we’re proud to have.”

Seated in the weekly meetings and seeing the community come together is powerful, Wang said, and he encourages people to be kind to neighbors, to strangers outside of their communities, disregard of their identities, or the differences and misconceptions they have had, he said.

“When you see injustice in this world, that may not be affecting you, consider how it would feel if other people have helped you during your time of need, and just try to extend your hand in that way,” Wang said.

This post is also available in: Chinese

Cambridge Local First